Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Truth and Purity in Looking Down

In the Groove by mdt1960
In the Groove, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
I look down.

It’s an easy thing to do, and know one bothers me about it. Even when I use my camera or cell phone to compose and capture what I see looking down, no one bothers me. I suspect most folk who bother to notice think I’m just plain weird. Maybe I am.

There’s something about photographing those things at my feet. For starters, I don’t have to get anyone’s permission. Years ago, you could walk up to practically anyone and ask to take their picture and the reply was almost always, “Sure!” Nowadays, people think you’re up to something. “Why do you want to take my picture.” Take a picture of someone’s kid in a public place and you’re practically accused of being a pedafile.

Not long ago, I was taking a photo of a dilapidated wind mill in rural Western Nebraska from the roadside when a farmer in a pickup truck drove by, turned around when he saw me, pulled up behind my car on the roadside to ask me what I was doing (when it was obvious what I was doing). Actually what he wanted to know was why I was taking pictures of his land. Who knows what was going through his head when he saw me pointing my lens at the old windmill. Years ago, the same scenario probably would have resulted in him driving by thinking to himself, “Hmm, I wonder what he sees in that old field of mine?”

People with cameras aren’t treated with the same good-natured response/interaction they once were. And perhaps it’s justified considering how much unflattering (even if incredible) photography there is out there. To top it off, there are more people with cameras then ever. In fact, if you don’t have at least a cell phone camera, you are certainly in a minority.

Road Kill by mdt1960
Road Kill, a photo by mdt1960 on Flickr.
Recently I was looking at a body of work published in Lenswork by photographer Jun Wang called “Over 100: Centenarians of Hainan.” They were amazing. He even had an incredible image of a nude centenarian—it wasn’t flattering, but it was amazing. Yet, sitting there looking at the images, what was even more impressive about this body of work had to do with the logistics prior to the shutter release… how does one go about making the arrangements to photograph a collection of centenarians? It was difficult for me to imagine how I would approach a person who was 100-years-old in a way that led to a fantastic portrait of them. To put it another way, if a centenarian were to ask why I wanted to take their picture, I’m not sure what I would say short of a boldface lie.

Which gets me thinking… I suspect many photographers do lie about their intentions when it comes to their rationale behind a photo request. And if not an outright lie, certainly some of a photographer’s rationale goes unspoken or turns out to be misleading. Further, if portrait-requesting photographers have never lied, why are so many people suspicious about having their picture taken upon request? I also wonder what percentage of fantastic (but unflattering) portraits have been actually viewed by their subjects?

Success in photography is more than just knowing how to work a camera. It’s also about working your subjects and those related to your subjects. And given that sobering truth, I’ll likely keep looking down.

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